Archives For Africa

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

A few quick news notes to start off your Wednesday.

Problems With Summer Solstice at Stonehenge: Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones lashes out at Pagans and other revelers who congregate each year at Stonehenge, noting the lack of (ancient) historical grounding and implying that it is only permitted now to avoid “public violence.”

“Eighteen thousand pagans, druids and – for all I know – modern Aztecsgathered at Stonehenge to celebrate the summer solstice. There were some drugs arrests, but judging from reports, English Heritage seem pleased with the numbers. Er, why? And why is this daft festival even allowed? In the 1980s hippies fought the police for their right to revel. So that is why it is permitted: because otherwise there would be public violence on Salisbury Plain. But there is no historical tradition justifying the pagan takeover of Britain’s most celebrated ancient monument every midsummer. There is not even a theological justification, for no connection exists between Stonehenge and modern paganism.”

Jones bemoans Stonehenge becoming “a stage for feeble pseudo-religious, pseudo-communal fantasies,” calling the gatherings “abusive” and “ugly.” I’m not sure why Jones is so against Summer Solstice gatherings at Stonehenge, he doesn’t seem to be arguing from a stance of preservation, simply aesthetics. Anyone who actually studies religion or folk tradition will tell you that a solid grounding in current historical information isn’t required for a popular tradition to form. Allowing the Druids, Pagans, hippies, and tourists to gather in a managed fashion harms no one, and indeed creates important liminal moments of communal sentiment that helps bind a nation and its people together. Stonehenge is a symbol of Britain now, something the national tourism industry knows full well,  and it’s bizarre to discourage people from having celebrations around it.

Direct Action at the San Francisco Peaks: While this week saw a lot of attention on the issue of protecting and preserving Native sacred places in the United States, particularly the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona, one event seemed to get overlooked in the coverage. Last week six activists were arrested in non-violent direct action in an attempt to halt construction of water pipeline that will be used to pump treated waste-water snow on the mountain, a move many indigenous peoples and Tribal Nations see as a blasphemy.

Kristopher Barney, Dine’ (Navajo) & one of the six who locked himself to an excavator stated, “This is a continuation of years of prayers and resistance. It is our hope that all Indigenous Peoples, and all others,  throughout the North, East, South and West come together to offer support to the San Francisco Peaks and help put a stop to Snowbowl’s plan to further destroy and desecrate such a sacred, beautiful and pristine mountain!”

“What part of sacred don’t they understand? Through our actions today, we say enough! The destruction and desecration has to end!” said Marlena Teresa Garcia, 16, a young Diné woman and one of the six who chose to lock down. “The Holy San Francisco Peaks is home, tradition, culture, and a sanctuary to me, and all this is being desecrated by the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort.  So now I, as a young Diné woman, stand by Dook’o’osliid’s side taking action to stop cultural genocide.  I encourage all indigenous youth to stand against the desecration that is happening on the Holy San Francisco Peaks and all other sacred sites”, said Garcia after being arrested and released.

There are accusations that police used excessive force in removing the protesters. You can read a press release sent out by the activists, as well as suggestions on how you can support their efforts, here. You can read all of my coverage concerning efforts to protect the San Francisco Peaks, here. Thanks to Kathryn Price NicDhàna for bringing this to my attention.

Vodun and Vaccines in Benin: CNN features an editorial from columnist Michael Gerson on efforts to get life-saving vaccines to people who need it in the developing world. In the piece Gerson promotes a new documentary collaboration between ONE and VBS called  “Voodoo and Vaccines” about how health workers reached out to Vodun and traditional healers in Benin to overcome skepticism and misinformation.

“Voodoo and Vaccines” shows how government and health officials have reached out to religious leaders, and how many traditional healers are now carrying a pro-vaccination message. They are combining a belief in traditional medicine with an acceptance of modern medicine. And this is benefiting the people of Benin.

This is not the first time activists and health workers have reached out to Vodun healers in order to reach the people of Benin, and it is encouraging to see a politically connected conservative Christian talk about the necessity of involving Vodun practitioners without descending into the smears and triumphalism that so tainted some outreach efforts in Haiti.

That’s all I have for now, perhaps more later. Have a great day!

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Observers to the horrifying phenomenon of witch-hunts and witch-killings in African nations like Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya have long wondered what role, if any, Western Christian missionaries played in the process. Some have defended missionaries, saying they have little to do with controversial figures like Helen Ukpabio, despite clear links with Western support and money. Now, Christianity Today reports that the problem of witch-hunts around the world has gotten bad enough that a major missiology conference has devoted an entire track to the subject. What these (Evangelical Christian) academics say is that indigenous ideas and reactions to “witchcraft” and malefic magic have been “Christianized” (their term), creating deadly consequences the missionaries could not (or would not) understand.

Missionaries have commonly responded [to witchcraft accusations] in two ways, said [Robert] Priest [professor of missions and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School]. The power of witches to harm others is dismissed as superstition, but this seldom persuades local Christians to abandon the concept; or the reality of witchcraft is endorsed by missionaries not wanting to be “post-Enlightenment rationalists” with a non-biblical skepticism of spiritual warfare.

The result is that traditional witch ideas are fused with Christian theology, which obscures the social consequences: Accused witches are often destitute or outcast, and thus socially defenseless. Instead of seeing old women or children as scapegoats, said Priest, Christian leaders suggest that witchcraft participates in genuine spiritual evil and that the accusations are reasonable. “The church is providing the cognitive underpinnings for the past system in the contemporary world.”

This is a striking admission from the world of Christian missionary thought, a sign, perhaps, of how powerless Western Christian missionaries now are to halt a process they helped initiate. Another academic, Timothy Stabell, assistant professor of mission at Briercrest College and Seminary, notes that the Christian Holy Spirit becomes “just another source of witch-like power,” but one that is considered more powerful (“potent”) than indigenous magics, creating a power imbalance that would also alter reactions by non-Christian traditional practitioners.

When you take what is revealed here and apply it on a larger scale, the coercive missionary actions of organizations like Samaritan’s Purse in Haiti take a far darker turn, and the culpability of Christian missionaries in the recent anti-Vodou killings becomes a far more serious question.

[Vodou leader Max] Beauvoir said he suspected that representatives of some other religions might be stirring up popular fears against voodoo practitioners using the cholera as a pretext. “I saw this coming. Since the earthquake some people have been blaming us, saying that we cast spells and did evil things which brought the earthquake as a punishment,” he said.”

It should be emphasized that these revelations aren’t from Talk to Action or some right-wing watch-dog site, this is from the most respected evangelical Christian news organization, and from a highly respected evangelical divinity school. That the best closing spin that could be put on this story is that “missiologists have not yet done an adequate job of wisely engaging these realities,” and that Christian missionaries should “mobilize the effort to rethink our role in this,” make me wonder what hasn’t been revealed yet.

I’ve reiterated time and time again on this site that witch hunts “over there” aren’t some isolated problem that has nothing to do with us. It should concern us, not because these victims are being branded as “witches” and some of us have reclaimed that label, but because this animus, hatred, and violence share a common root. A root that fuels distrust and discrimination in Australia, badly disguised glee in the destruction of non-Christian faiths in Japan, and opportunistic panic-peddlers in the United States. That root is the anti-pluralistic and exclusionary theologies favored by some strains of the dominant monotheisms. Now that we know there is an acknowledged link between Western missionary efforts and the process that contributed to the current crisis of witch-killings, we need to ask if there will be any accountability beyond mild internal recriminations and academic discussion. Will anything be done to make missionaries who brought their ideas of spiritual warfare and demonic powers to co-mingle with indigenous ideas of malefic magic accountable?

News was made in Nigeria last week when a unique lobbying group warned presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar to drop his bid lest he face humiliation at the polls.

“Atiku should withdraw now if he loves himself. He would be humbled by President Goodluck Jonathan. If he withdraws now, it will be a saving grace for him, but if he insists on going ahead with the primaries, that will be the end of his political career. “During our emergency meeting to deliberate on the state of affairs in Nigeria, it was clearly revealed to us that the days of Atiku’s relevance in Nigeria’s politics are over.”

It wasn’t a political advocacy group sending this message, or at least not a typical political advocacy group. It was the Witches and Wizards Association of Nigeria (WITZAN), and they have a message to send to their fellow Nigerians.

“The way some people look at witches and wizards is as if we are evil-minded people. Not all witches are bad. Our own type of witchcraft which we practise is a progressive one. The day government and other stakeholders invite us to intervene in the affairs of Nigeria, we will gladly do so. We have the antidote to bring lasting peace to this nation. Nigeria is a great country, witches and wizards can help restore its lost glory.

Considering the fact that Nigeria has seen fearsome persecutions against children accused of witchcraft, the fact that a public association of Witches and Wizards has come forward could be a positive step. Could this mean that Nigeria, home to several traditional religions, including Vodun, is starting to organize itself in much the same way Pagan groups have in the West? Since they have a Facebook page, we should keep track to see how this group develops. Depending on their goals and outlook, this could be an association that Pagan and indigenous groups outside Nigeria could find solidarity with.

A few quick news notes to start your Monday.

Will a Ghanaian Witch-Burning Turn the Tide? Last week a 72-year-old woman in Ghana was accused of being a witch, tortured, doused with kerosene, and lit on fire. This is nothing new; the United Nations and various NGOs have been talking about the global epidemic of witch-killings and witch-hunts for some time now. But will this latest gruesome case spark a change in Ghana? It could just be an illusion created by international press attention, but there seems to be widespread revulsion and outcry over this case, and those forced to live in “witch camps” are agitating for justice.

“Inmates of the alleged witches camp at Kukuo numbering about 700 in the Nanumba South District of the Northern Region have threatened to go on a naked demonstration if government fails to punish the murderers of 72 year old Grandma Ama Hemmar, who was allegedly murdered at Tema Community 15 under the pretence of alleged witchcraft.”

Could we finally be seeing the collective cry of “enough” from the people of Ghana? Has this madness finally begun to run its course? There are some promising signs, like a massive decrease in hungry people, and a growing influx of oil money, that could diminish the social pressures that help fuel these moral panics. As members of communities that have been caught in the crossfire of moral panics against “Satanism” and “the occult”  we should take special interest in seeing these injustices ended, and ensuring their madness isn’t allowed to spread. For those looking for a way to directly aid women and children in Ghana, please check out WISE (Women Initiative for Self Empowerment).

Problems with The Power: Mark Vernon at Religion Dispatches reviews Rhonda “The Secret” Byrne’s latest New Thought opus “The Secret: The Power”. While Vernon points out that the “Law of Attraction” is nothing new, Byrne’s version relies on a “relentless optimism” that doesn’t encompass tragedy as anything but a failure of vision, ignoring the uncontrollable “absurdities” of life.

“…there are critical differences between Stoicism and The Power, for the ancients were wise to life’s tragedies too. Some things do, apparently, go badly. (They could hardly think otherwise, living during that long period of history in which death was associated with the young, not the old.) So, their instruction was to ‘go with the flow’ even when that is hard to stomach. Theirs is not a relentless optimism, expecting everything, like Byrne’s. Rather, the Stoics advocated expecting nothing, but working at everything. Be lightened by life’s absurdities too, they recommended. That way you won’t be disappointed when you don’t, apparently, make progress. You’ll be able to maintain your trust in the logos.”

In the end, the problem with “The Secret” is that it’s only half a philosophy, encouraging gain through positive attitudes while empowering dangerous “teachers” who rake in millions. A “smile or die” world that leaves no place for the millions placed in inhuman conditions by environmental, social, and political causes beyond their control.

As Pagans, one of our greatest gifts to the world can be to reject The Secret’s “moral callousness” and replace it with encompassing philosophies of life that don’t blame your brain for every tragedy.

Polyamorists Ask to Not Be Criminalized: As the Canadian polygamy trial moves forward, which I’ve covered here for several months, the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association (CPAA) asks the BC Supreme Court to stop breaking up loving families.

By criminalizing consensual polyamorists along with patriarchal polygamists, the BC and federal governments will break up loving families, a Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association (CPAA) lawyer said on Nov 25. “The attorneys general have lost their moral compass,” John Ince told a BC Supreme Court reference on the constitutionality of Section 293 of the Criminal Code. A British Columbia court began hearings Nov 22 to determine whether Canada’s law prohibiting polygamy violates basic human rights. The polyamorists maintain Section 293 infringes on their constitutional rights of association, religion, equality and the life, liberty and security of the person as outlined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A subsection of the law prohibits any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time, whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage, or celebrates, assists or is a party to a rite, ceremony, contract or consent that purports to sanction a relationship.”

Polyamorists are justifiably worried that they will be lumped in with patriarchal, and sometimes abusive, forms of polygamy. Nor has the government been forthcoming on whether it would prosecute polyamorist families should this effort to decriminalize polygamy fail. This creates a tense situation for the many Pagan poly families living in Canada, forcing their life choices underground for fear of persecution. Hearings are just beginning on this case, and I’ll keep you posted on its progress.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Top Story: It looks like openly Pagan New York City councilman Dan Halloran has been vindicated in his recent clash with a parking enforcement agent. The NY Daily News reports that a judge threw out the $165 ticket written to him during his confrontation with traffic agent Daniel Chu, and that Chu has been disciplined and sent back to training.

“The lawmaker had tailed Chu after he saw the agent speed through a stop sign with his police lights flashing, he said. When Halloran stopped to snap photos of Chu parked illegally in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts in Whitestone, Queens, Chu hollered at him and wrote him a ticket for blocking a crosswalk. Chu was put on foot patrol and is required to undergo retraining at the Police Academy, which includes sensitivity training. He also faces several days’ docked pay, police sources said. After the Daily News ran a story on the confrontation last month, Halloran was bombarded with calls and e-mails from motorists claiming to have been wrongly ticketed by Chu. Complaints included the agent doling out tickets to a funeral procession, he said, adding that he is still calling for a review of every ticket the agent wrote.”

Considering how many New Yorkers feel about traffic agents, I’m sure Halloran has won himself a few new supporters from this little tempest in a tea-cup. But this doesn’t look like the end of troubles for the freshman council member, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) is calling for a federal investigation into the election that made Halloran a councilman, citing accusations of racial intimidation at the polls.

AALDEF told us their observers saw Asian-American voters and volunteers for Kim’s campaign harrassed and even assaulted by whites. The Halloran campaign countered that vanloads of Asian voters from outside the district were brought in to vote, and that voters were encouraged not to support him because of his pre-Christian pagan religious beliefs. Today, AALDEF is also claiming Korean-American voters also faced roadblocks to casting their ballots, thanks to the “racially discriminatory application of election procedures by New York City Board of Elections officials.”

I’m very certain there were racial tensions heightened during the campaign, and I don’t doubt that some thugs engaged in direct harassment of Asian voters, but there’s been no real proof that the Halloran campaign participated, encouraged, or benefited from such actions. Halloran, for his part, says he welcomes “any investigation to address election issues, especially voter fraud and electioneering inside the prohibited zones, as well as whether monitors followed the rules for avoiding voters entering polling sites before they voted.”

Another Pagan Music Festival: We have the music-focused Faerieworlds in Oregon, and the upcoming festival of Pagan Music That Doesn’t Suck in Missouri, and now Bangor Daily News reports that the Eastern Maine Pagan Pride Association will sponsor the state’s first pagan music festival.

“What makes a pagan song pagan is the lyrics rather than the kind of music or the instruments, according to Keri Alley, who helped organize the event. “Portland has held a pagan pride event, but this is the first event in the state devoted to pagan music,” she said recently. The performers will include Women with Wings, 1476, SadisTech, Lorelei Greenwood, Wolf Bone and Brite Phoenix. Members of Dark Follies, including Selcouth, are scheduled to perform. Brotha Luv, the host of WERU’s “Head Rush” show, will act as emcee.”

A sign that Pagan music’s time is soon arriving? Harbinger of a generational shift in Pagan-themed events? The most exciting thing about this show is that I haven’t heard of many of these bands, which points to a far larger underground of Pagan music-making than maybe any of us have anticipated. Artists at the festival include Lorelei GreenwoodDark FolliesWomen with Wings1476SadisTech, and Wolf Bone.

Botanicas and Those Who Supply Them: Fascinating in-depth journalistic treatments of minority faiths, and the businesses that grow up around them, are truly rare. So I was very happy to see the Dallas Observer’s profile of Chango Botánica in Oak Cliff, and its resident folk healer (curandero) Francisco “Pancho” Diaz.

“You can’t take out the religious element from the botánicas,” says Northern Arizona University anthropology professor Robert Trotter, who has researched curanderismo, Mexican-American folk medicine. “But, if you were to do so, there would be a huge overlap between what they carry and many of the supplements and products sold at, say, a GNC or someplace like Whole Foods.”

Despite Chango Botanica’s popularity and success, its future is threatened by a cancer diagnosis for Pancho, and a planned rezoning and gentrification of the neighborhood that will drive up property values, and drive away the shop’s usual clientèle.

“Imagine one day you’re driving and you don’t see that lighthouse of beautiful saints from multiple faiths and beliefs, and you ask yourself, ‘What happened?'” Jorge says. “We are a fixture in this community and so is every other business on West Davis. It’s sad to see even one tire shop disappear. And if a tire shop can make me feel that way, think about Chango Botánica.”

The whole article is worth the read, and I encourage you to do so. Better yet, as evidence of the amount of research Daniel Rodrigue did for this piece, he presents a story thread that didn’t make it into the main article; a spotlight of the candle manufacturer that supplies many of the local botanicas. It, along with a slideshow of Chango Botanica’s back rooms give an engaging portrait of a thriving economy that many of us barely notice.

A New Training Program for Pagan Clergy: Pagan organization Earth Traditions, co-founded by Angie Buchanan and Drake Spaeth, has officially launched their new training program for Pagan clergy.

“Thank you for your interest in the Earth Traditions Ministry Training Program. This is not a Seminary, a program of magical instruction, or necessarily an ordination track. This is a practical certificated training program designed to provide Pagans who wish to be Ministers, (servants of the community) an array of tools and resources to inform and protect both the individual and the communities they serve.”

You can find an outline of their curriculum, here, and a list of instructors, here. I couldn’t find word on when their Fall semester begins or ends, but I’m sure interested parties can find out by contacting Earth Traditions.  In other Pagan clergy/leader training news, the next National Pagan Leadership Skills Conference is coming up next week in Virginia, and Cherry Hill Seminary’s Fall registration is now open. It should be interesting to see how all these organizations, and others, rise to the challenge of providing leadership training to an ever-expanding modern Pagan community in the years to come.

A Ritual Death Results in Homicide Charge: A Santero in Puerto Rico, Jose Cadiz Tapia, has been charged with negligent homicide in the death of a woman who suffered extensive second-degree burns after he allegedly dropped a candle into an alcohol bath she was undergoing under his direction.

“Police consider 28-year-old Stephanie Rodriguez Pizarro’s death in July 2009 in a San Juan housing project to be an accident, and say she sought the treatment to help with marital and financial troubles. She died of second-degree burns over half her body. The healer, 46-year-old Jose Cadiz Tapia, was charged Tuesday following an investigation that took about a year to complete, police said. He faces six months to three years in prison if convicted.”

What is it with bizarre ritual deaths lately? Needless to say, if you are bathing in flammable liquid, do so well away from flames. If you do think alcohol baths and candles mix, be sure you really, really, trust the person holding the candles, and that you take precautions against an agonizing fiery death.

A Quick Final Note on Catholic Empathy: A Zambia chief is imprisoning “witches” in an illegal dungeon in his palace basement, and the Malole Catholic Church Parish Council has threatened to withhold holy communion from the chief (who apparently is nominally Catholic) if the practice continues. Good for the local Catholic Church, right? Well, apparently it’s snarky comedy gold for National Catholic Register blogger/commentator Pat Archbold.

“It seems the deal-breaker in this case is that the Chief’s sorcerer slammer does not provide adequate toilet facilities.  Nothing will bring down the full wrath of the God and Amnesty International like not having adequate porta-potties in your own personal Azkaban. While sharia law may allow for attempted murders (or actual murders) on the cast of Harry Potter actresses, the Church still frowns upon such activity.  Porta-potties or no porta-potties. Closer home, certain Catholic politicians who oppose the Church do not seem to be in any danger of being banned from Communion any time soon.  Not that they are too worried about that anyway. Apparently in U.S, just as in Zambia, the witches are still free to receive communion.

Yes, because voting the wrong way in a democracy is equatable to illegally imprisoning accused witches in your basement! Also note that he makes no mention of the hundreds of thousands killed, tortured, and abused because of witch-hysteria around the world, but instead makes a correlation to the “witches” (ie Catholic politicians who are pro-choice) receiving communion in America. Truly, his empathy and sense of proportion is staggering.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

As an academic discipline, Pagan Studies is certainly a “new kid on the block,” just as Paganism as a term for a living religious tradition is still relatively new in the current era of world history. (I have had to clarify for some people I’ve met in recent history that identifying as Pagan doesn’t mean “no religion at all” on several occasions…!) Some of the writers who have produced seminal works within Pagan Studies come from a journalistic background, like Chas Clifton and Margot Adler. The focus of a great deal of Pagan studies up until this point has tended to be anthropological, with exemplary writers like Sabina Magliocco coming from this discipline and forging paths in this new area. Many of these have done so while being practitioners themselves. But, the field of Pagan Studies is (like many such “____ Studies” subjects) an interdisciplinary one, taking in elements from history (the field of Ronald Hutton, amongst others), literary studies across many fields, sociology, psychology, and religion, as well as a variety of other possibilities, in addition to anthropology. This interdisciplinarity can only be an advantage in terms of offering many people across a broad range of subjects the opportunity to lend their own special skills and knowledge to questions within the field.

And yet, the anthropological methodology of “participant-observer” is not shared with most of these other fields, making it difficult in some cases to engage with these subjects in an academic setting at all, much less to do so when one is a practitioner of the religion oneself. Religious studies has based its own methodology on a phenomenological approach, rather than a theological approach, so that an individual student or scholar can examine a particular religious idea, practice, text, or development while not necessarily endorsing that idea from a personal or sectarian viewpoint. While a robust Pagan theology would indeed be useful, both within and across various modern traditions and movements (and moves in this direction have been made with John Michael Greer’s A World Full of Gods and T. Thorn Coyle’s Kissing the Limitless), this ability to have Paganism studied as a religion and a religious phenomenon—both by non-Pagans and Pagans alike—within an academic setting is a positive thing, but also one that does not have a very lengthy historical precedent.

Two scholars who have written on the difficulties of researching Paganism and the perceived difficulty of “going native” within academia include Graham Harvey in his piece “Pagan Studies or the Study of Paganisms? A Case Study in the Study of Religions” in Researching Paganisms, and Amy Hale’s “White Men Can’t Dance: Evaluating Race, Class and Rationality in Ethnographies of the Esoteric” in Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon. The fact is, some of us who are practicing Pagans do exist in academic fields, and happen to also study things that would potentially be of interest or use to modern practicing Pagans. So, what about us?

The simple fact of the matter is that in many disciplines, this is not in any way an advantage, and is often something that must be concealed for fear of one’s work being labeled as “agenda-driven scholarship.” (Let’s ignore for a moment all the findings of post-modern theory, and the fact that there is no such thing as completely disinterested, objective, or scientific scholarship when it comes to anything in the humanities and social sciences…!) One must tread carefully; and yet, the question of authenticity remains. Is crypto-Paganism in the humanities—particularly in the direct study of Paganism, the occult, magic, and other such subjects—a good thing, or would “coming out of the broom closet” be as useful and liberating as it is for those who are diverse in their sexual orientations have found it to be in their own workplaces?

While that is an issue that should be up to the individuals involved, what is more worrisome is how often aspects of Paganism, witchcraft, occultism, and magic are misunderstood amongst the academic “experts” in these fields. I was a guest professor at a major Midwestern U.S. university from January to April of this year, and I had the opportunity to speak about both historical and modern Pagan practices in several of the courses I was teaching; I also teach religious studies courses that touch on Paganism on an adjunct basis. In all of these, I generally do not reveal my own religious affiliations to my students (or at least not until the end of class when everything is finished and there is no possibility of bias in grading or in students’ completion of assignments). While at this Midwestern university during those months, I spoke with other people who teach or research these subjects (all of whom were non-practitioners) in diverse fields, at conferences, dinners, and special seminars. Some of the things I heard about modern Paganism from these “experts” utterly astounded me with the ignorance, negativity, and arrogance displayed. The names of the university and the events and individuals involved have been withheld here to protect the ignorant.

In early March, I had dinner the night before a seminar on witchcraft with a professor from another university, who had a large section on modern Paganism in several of his courses, and admitted to a great interest in and expertise with the subject. (After praising the work of Tanya Luhrmann as a useful and representative treatment of modern witchcraft, I became quite skeptical…) At one point, Asatru was mentioned, and another person at the dinner asked what that was. This professor from the other university said “Those are the Norse Pagans who are white supremacists.” (!?!) I quickly added “It’s a very small minority amongst the Germanic Pagan population which actively thinks that,” to which he replied, “From what I’ve studied, it seems to be an essential element in Asatru.” I pointed him to the work of Diana Paxson and suggested that he take a close look at her, as—no matter what some may opine about her practices—she is representative of the larger trend in Asatru to not have racial considerations at the forefront of her theology, or even her wider concerns, spiritually or otherwise. Gods hope he followed up on that suggestion!

There was a small weekend conference on religion and magic in the ancient world, with various classicists as presenters, and it amazed me how naïve most of the people speaking as experts in ancient magic were about how magic “actually” works. One gave a paper outlining a new methodology for outlining what might be magical material in the archaeological record, without addressing anything specific from the texts involved, like the fact that crossroads might be a good place to excavate for remnants of magical activity, if in no other way than to see if the soil samples were frequently disturbed during the period of late antiquity. I made this suggestion afterwards, and the presenter seemed rather dumbfounded that he had not thought of it. Another gave a paper on a cognitive studies approach to magic, because it is impossible (from her viewpoint, and no doubt that of many in the room) that someone could think of a by-definition “inanimate object” as having power, much less volition or even agency. In polytheistic and animistic cultures, it would be much stranger to assume an object would even be able to exist as “inanimate,” but of course the context of theology in the original cultures was not in any way relevant to the inquiry. (Much less trying to argue that certain ritual tools of many modern pagans not only have had a life of their own quite literally, but in fact might choose the owner as equally as the owner might choose them!) The results of this “cognitive theory in magic” research might reveal much about how a modern person understands from a cognitive theoretical perspective how this would work, but I seriously doubt it would have any relevance at all to magic practitioners in late antiquity.

Even worse, to support her research, she cited a recent study of how U.S. military servicemembers in Iraq and Afghanistan who work with robotic drones have often risked life and limb to save injured robots, have held robot funerals and medal ceremonies, and have become very emotionally attached to the robots they work with, even giving them names. The gathered audience of academics laughed at this. I was not amused at all. The arrogance to laugh at people under an immense amount of stress, doing some of the most difficult and dangerous work in the military, was bad enough; but the idea that as “rational” academics, all those in the room were somehow superior to these “uneducated” and even “primitive” and “superstitious” individuals was truly sickening.

However, these various incidents paled in comparison to a seminar on African witchcraft that I attended, hosted by the departments of African Studies and anthropology. After an outside scholar presented a good paper on witchcraft accusations in parts of modern Africa, including the idea that nowadays all witches have airplanes (apparently, that’s how they fly…?!?), a faculty member present asked why there aren’t anthropological studies of modern witches in the U.S., and then went on to tell us all how witches killed her cat when she lived in L.A. The outside presenter somewhat dodged that issue, but then said “Well, there is this modern thing called ‘Wicca,’ but, of course, it’s false and artificial.” Oh, really? Deciding that it was useless to engage that presenter in conversation, I instead went to the faculty member who had asked the question.

I began to suggest some of the studies I’ve mentioned above, and she cut me off and said “It’s not as if I’d actually read any of that; I just wondered why no one is doing this work.” (They are!) As I was trying to talk a bit more sensibly about some of the issues she raised, and I mentioned that there are a larger number of Pagans in the U.S. than some might think, she rolled her eyes and said “I can’t think that’s in any way a good thing.” As I began to respond to that comment as rationally as possible, she again cut me off and said angrily, “THEY KILLED MY CAT!” Due to some knowledge and research on that issue (including a great deal written on this very blog about animal sacrifice!), I then tried to explain that no modern Pagan group, including those that advocate animal sacrifice, would kill a cat, nor any non-food animal, nor would they dispose of it by strewing it out across a neighborhood, as was the case with her own dead cat’s story. Apparently, some “occult expert” in the police department said that “they probably killed it because they wanted its blood for their rituals.” I again tried to explain the likelihood of that was extremely remote, but by this time, she had completely dismissed me.

Modern Pagans, witches, occultists, and magic practitioners are a potential audience for a great deal of academic work on these topics—indeed, I imagine more modern Pagans and occultists own titles from Penn State University Press’ Magic in History series than do actual academics! And, why wouldn’t modern Pagans, particularly those of a reconstructionist bent, not want to go to university to study Classical Greek and Roman cultures and languages, Egyptology, Scandinavian Studies, Celtic Studies, and any number of other historical and literary subjects which might have direct relevance to our own spiritual practices? Generations of Christians and Jews have done the same, whether under the aegis of religious studies, theology, archaeology, or any number of other disciplines. And yet, many academics in these fields have a vested interest in keeping their “dead languages and dead religions” as dead as possible. Indeed, the term “academic” does not just mean learned discourses on a variety of subjects, but instead can mean “neither practical nor useful.” Gods forbid someone translate a ritual text or spell, lest someone attempt to use it!

The academic engagement with Paganism, as well as Pagan involvement in academia, could be very useful indeed. But, until academia takes modern Pagans as subjects of useful study on a wider basis, as well as considers practicing Pagans as equally viable to study such subjects (whether modern Paganism or ancient and medieval literature, culture, history, and magic), then full religious equality within the Ivory Tower will not be a reality.

In my opinion, it is no coincidence that questions of hermeneutics are at the forefront of academic discussions of methodology in many fields; but it is the god Hermes who is at the root of the very practice of interpretive sciences, if you like, both etymologically and functionally. The question of the biases of an academic in studying their field is a question of hermeneutics, and one which has been inserted into the discourse on feminist theory, LGBTQ studies and histories, race, postcolonialism, and a variety of other discourses within particular humanities and social science subjects. And, I think it is time that many of us brought Hermes with us in our hermeneutics, as Pagans in academia, and as Pagans studying Paganism. Gods willing, it will happen more and more as the public face of Paganisms in the U.S. and worldwide increases.

Many thanks and blessings to Jason for his continued hard work on this blog and for the invitation to write here today; to all of you who took the time to read this entry; and to all of the Pagans working, both behind-the-scenes and openly, in academia!

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus is a founder of the Ekklesía Antínoou (a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist group dedicated to Antinous, the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and related divine figures) a member of Neos Alexandria, and a Celtic Reconstructionist pagan. He has published a collection of poetry called The Phillupic Hymns (Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008), as well as a number of essays and poems in the various Bibliotheca Alexandrina devotional volumes to Artemis, Hekate, and Isis and Serapis, with several more due out in the near future, as well as two poems in the Scarlet Imprint anthology Datura. He can also be found blogging for International Pagan Values Month 2010 on the Ekklesía Antínoou LiveJournal group. Lupus’ day-job (as a professional academic and adjunct instructor) and general daily life is nowhere near as interesting as any of the above, and is therefore best glossed over!